The Business of MOOC

Tis the time for year-end reviews, as EdSurge1does with “MOOCs in 2015: Breaking Down the Numbers”.

According to them, the number of students enrolling in MOOCs has doubled with “the total number of students who signed up for at least one course has crossed 35 million–up from an estimated 17 million last year”.

The number of courses offered has also increased, with “1,800 new courses were announced, taking the total number of courses to 4,200 from over 550 universities”.

The usual suspects are still at the top as “Coursera, edX and the Canvas remain the top three providers of courses”.

And lots more statistics – languages used (English fell… a little), best reviewed courses, the top rated universities – along with some trends (evidentally free certificates are dead).

Missing from the report, however, is anything about how many students actually completed the courses. Or about whether the instruction was beneficial to their academic life (or their actual life). Or whether students felt the money, time, and effort they put into the MOOC was worthwhile.

For 2016 “MOOC providers have started targeting high schoolers with the intentions of closing the college readiness gap, helping students to get a taste of different majors through introductory courses, and providing exam preparation (like AP) courses”. And increasing their business.

Because, as best I can understand from reading EdSurge, MOOCs are all about the business, not learning.

Not in the Education World

I’m not sure if this story is a reflection on the political nature of education reform or on the superficiality of MOOC.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education is offering three MOOCS – massive open online courses – with “convenient, self-paced modules to accommodate busy schedules” to help you do more to “advance and effectively implement trending reforms.”

So, who are the wise and experienced educators leading these courses?

Along with [Joel] Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools, and [John] King, the former New York State education commissioner who is now a top adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, you will hear from people including John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation, who sent the e-mail announcement; and Greg Hughes, Utah Speaker of the House. The 18 people shown on the foundation Web site who are involved in the courses come from the policy and legislative (and not the education) world. [my emphasis]

That “not in the education world” part pretty much summarizes the entire approach to education reform in this country.

More Than Delivering Content

Larry Cuban recently posted a commentary on MOOCs about three years after their introduction into the education hype machine, and offers three reasons why they will not revolutionize higher education.

All are good observations but I think number two also explains why they and other mass teaching platforms won’t revolutionize K12 schools.

The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.

There aren’t many K12 MOOCs (yet) but we still have any number of highly-lauded subject-matter delivery systems promoted by billionaires and politicians, like Khan Academy, that are also neither revolutionary or effective, and do little or nothing to build a classroom learning culture.

Just my observation.

Confessions of a Dropout

I’m a failure.

Over the past couple of years I’ve enrolled in four different MOOCs, and never completed any of them. Five if you count the one I tried twice. I dropped the most recent course before the first unit even began.

After attracting all kinds of hype in 2013, not to mention plenty of venture capital and the blessing of high profile business writers, why haven’t MOOCs been more successful for the students (aka clients/customers)? More importantly, why hasn’t the format worked for me?

Maybe I didn’t read the course description carefully enough and never should have registered in the first place. In at least one case the description didn’t match the content. I suppose the reason for my being a dropout could be that the MOOC format just isn’t appropriate for my temperament. Or I’m just a crappy student.

In any case I’m not alone in being a serial dropout.  One recent study found that only about 10% of MOOC students complete the requirements for a course. I’ve seen other research showing completion numbers above that but far south of 25%. And the research provides far more questions than answers.

For my personal experience with the format, it certainly is not about lack of experience or comfort with working online. I’ve taught2 “regular” online courses for three different organizations since 2000 and successfully completed many others as a student. Although, with 20 – 30 people in a class, none of them could be considered massive.

However, for me the size of the course didn’t matter as much as the community feeling. That element was missing in the MOOCs. The organizers of the courses always try to build participant interactions into their units but with thousands of people involved, those efforts always seemed forced, and even more awkward than many online discussions already are.

So, what does my experience with MOOCs mean to the future of the concept? Likely, very little. After all, successful businesses (including educational ones) have been built by servicing only 10% of the available customer base.

And there’s no reason why one particular delivery system for learning should meet the needs of every single student. Right, Sec. Duncan? Mr. Gates? Ms. Rhee? Bueller?

Photo from Flickr by the University of Iowa, used under a Creative Commons license.